The Epiphany | Day of Epiphany

Ephesians 3:-12

1 This is why I, Paul, am a prisoner of Christ for you Gentiles. 2 You’ve heard, of course, about the responsibility to distribute God’s grace, which God gave to me for you, right? 3 God showed me his secret plan in a revelation, as I mentioned briefly before 4 (when you read this, you’ll understand my insight into the secret plan about Christ). 5 Earlier generations didn’t know this hidden plan that God has now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets through the Spirit. 6 This plan is that the Gentiles would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with the Jews in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

7 I became a servant of the gospel because of the grace that God showed me through the exercise of his power. 8 God gave his grace to me, the least of all God’s people, to preach the good news about the immeasurable riches of Christ to the Gentiles. 9 God sent me to reveal the secret plan that had been hidden since the beginning of time by God, who created everything. 10 God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church. 11 This was consistent with the plan he had from the beginning of time that he accomplished through Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In Christ we have bold and confident access to God through faith in him.

The Epiphany

One question with which the church wrestled in its earliest days was whether certain racial and ethnic groups could be included in the church. It’s probably not all that difficult to believe given the past and present racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious discrimination in the United States.

And, before any of us raise our eyebrows about the religious discrimination part, remember that before John F. Kennedy was elected, no one thought a Roman Catholic could be president. The fear was that a Catholic president would be a puppet of the Pope. That’s religious discrimination. The United States has a long, ugly history of discrimination that persists as a part of our national identity. To be sure, so, too, do other nations. The United States certainly isn’t the only one now or historically.

But it might come as a surprise to learn that the early church had to wrestle with matters of this nature, too. This was the church in its infancy. Many of these people—women and men—were disciples who had walked with Jesus. So, how could people in the church have held the idea that race or ethnicity could keep one apart from the salvation of God?

I’ve mentioned in previous sermons how the Judaism of Jesus’ day had evolved from its earliest roots. The architectural layout of the Jerusalem temple differed from that of the original tent of meeting in that it had various courts which excluded certain people. Gentiles could go no farther than the Court of Gentiles. Jewish women could go no farther than the Court of Women. Jewish men could go no farther than the Court of Israel. Only priests could enter the Court of Priests. The architecture of the temple, itself, shows us that access to God was being limited based on the consequence of a person’s birth: male, female, priestly family, non-priestly family, Jew, non-Jew. One’s physical nearness to God was limited by these factors. Dividing walls had been erected between people and God: walls designed and built by people. These demarcations were not from the Bible.

The first Christians were Jewish women and men, so these ideas of barriers and exclusion that existed in the Judaism of their day persisted into the early church, especially the idea that salvation was for Jews, not Gentiles. If a Gentile wanted to be saved, then he or she must become a Jew first and follow the law of Moses. Otherwise, they didn’t have access to God’s promises or salvation. Judaism of the first century could not imagine the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan.

Gentiles were known within first century Judaism as sinners. The word Gentile was practically synonymous with the word sinner. So, it wasn’t entirely a surprise that many—if not most—Jews who believed in Jesus Christ held that view of Gentiles. The salvation of Jesus was for Jews. The light to the nations was imagined as a beacon that would draw Gentiles to Israel so they could become Jews (c.f. Isaiah 60) and follow the law of Moses. Gentiles were on the outside looking in unless they were circumcised into the Covenant of Israel.

You might remember the event recorded in Acts 10, where Peter had a dream and went to visit the Gentile Cornelius. Even when he arrived at Cornelius’s house Peter was hesitant about the whole matter, and he confessed to Cornelius, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 CEB). Note that Peter didn’t say that he’d learned that lesson fully, he spoke as if it were still in progress, “I really am learning…” He was on his way. Getting there.

After sharing the good news about Jesus with these Gentiles, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his entire household, which surprised Peter and the Jewish-Christians who were with him. We’re told Peter and the circumcised believers “…were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45 CEB). Since these Gentiles received the Holy Spirit, Peter decided they should probably be baptized, so this household of Gentiles were baptized into the church.”

And not everyone liked it. When Peter went back to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and laid accusations against him for going into a Gentile home and eating with them (c.f. Acts 11:1-18). Peter’s actions were unacceptable to them. So, Peter had to explain himself and his actions to these men.

(And we know his critics were all men because they’re described as “the circumcised believers” in verse 3).

After Peter’s explanation, the critics concluded that God had apparently enabled Gentiles to repent—to change their hearts and lives—so they might have new life. But it was unexpected, and it took a lot of God-led intervention before anyone—even Peter—came to that conclusion: two visions, that of Cornelius and Peter (note that Peter had to see his vision three times!), and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Gentiles before the eyes of circumcised believers.

Accepting non-Jews into the church was neither automatic nor easy. There was resistance to it. The circumcised believers didn’t understand how the church—let alone a holy God—could possibly accept people whom they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt were sinners. Because, to them, the fact was that Gentiles were sinners. Period.

Later, in Acts 15, the situation with the Gentiles had become such a hot-button issue that the church in Jerusalem held a council to determine what to do about the matter. And Scripture doesn’t perfectly agree with what happened at that council. In Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a somewhat rosy picture in chapter 15, while Paul’s version of events in Galatians 2 is much less so. (Paul was actually there, Luke wasn’t). Paul even described how he called Peter out after Peter began to treat the Gentile believers differently—he stopped eating with them—when some Jewish believers who came from James to promote circumcision among the Gentile believers.

Paul had a heated disagreement with the circumcised believers who promoted circumcision for years. In fact, Paul got so mad at them that he wished they wouldn’t stop at circumcision. They should just go all the way and castrate themselves (c.f. Galatians 5:12).

The author of Ephesians, whether it was written by Paul or not, nevertheless echoes Paul’s insistence that God has unexpectedly and surprisingly expanded a formerly well-defined, black-and-white, clear-cut orthodox religious belief. God showed the author of Ephesians God’s secret plan in a revelation—an Epiphany. This grand plan of God, which had been hidden from all previous generations, had now been revealed by the Holy Spirit to the apostles and prophets. “This plan is that the Gentiles would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with the Jews in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesian 3:6 CEB).

It’s like feminism for Gentiles. Feminism says that females are equal to males in all aspects of culture, religion, and society. The author of Ephesians says that Gentiles are equal to Jews in the eyes and plan of God—that we have a place in God’s plan as co-heirs. Elsewhere, Paul declares that in Jesus Christ there is no longer any separation between us based on the consequence of our birth. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, circumcised nor uncircumcised (c.f. 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). We Gentiles share with the Jews in the promises of God in Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel: the good news.

Moreover, the author of Ephesians declares that his special mission from God is to declare this good news—that Gentiles are recipients of God’s immeasurable riches. It begs the question, if this is good news, for whom or for what is it bad news? Usually, good news for the outcast is seen as bad news by insiders. Good news for the poor is seen as bad news by the rich. Good news for the immigrant is seen as bad news by citizens. Good news for women is seen as bad news by men. It’s the established, the beneficiaries of power, and the rule-makers who want to keep the other fenced out, walled off, contained, divided, separate.

Yet, the author of Ephesians tells us that God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of God’s wisdom through the church. The “rulers and powers” in the heavens are a part of God’s creation. They’re representative of the forces at work in human life, such as political systems, social systems, institutional systems, even religious systems, among others.

In and of themselves, these rulers and powers in the heavens are not evil, but sin does work in and through them all the time. These rulers and powers also claim our allegiance in place of God. Sin exhibits itself in the rulers, powers, and principalities in many ways. Whenever institutions, political parties, governments, or governmental authorities express actions or even ideas that are contrary to God’s design—including discrimination—those authorities and powers act as agents of sin. When they woo human allegiance to themselves and their designs, thus away from God and God’s designs, then they’re acting as agents of sin.

What’s interesting about this text is that the church is explicitly described as something that confronts these rulers and powers with God’s wisdom. We, the church, are called by God to act in ways that confront and ultimately counter the sin of the rulers and powers. That’s why the church’s primary allegiance is to God, not to any particular nation or politic.

That allegiance to God, first, frees us—the church—to speak truth to power and bring the good news to bear on all parts of society. We don’t sit idly by. We don’t silently accede while the rulers and powers do their work. We—the church—bring to bear the rich variety of God’s wisdom that is within us against those sinful official policies and authorized mandates of the rulers and powers.

This good news—God’s eternal plan that was once hidden but now revealed—is that there is equality between those who were formerly not seen as equals. In Ephesians, that means there is equality between Jew and Gentile. For us, today, how might that reorient our imaginations about the way things are?

There’s something inherently subversive to the gospel: the good news. The dominion of God is more than a little subversive in its inbreaking-activity in our world. It came in a new and powerful way as a baby born in Bethlehem. It was announced to the rulers and powers by Gentile Magi from the east. And those rulers and powers responded by slaughtering the children all around Bethlehem and sending the parents of Jesus fleeing for their lives into Egypt.

The rulers and powers are terrified of the gospel. Jesus Christ was more than a little subversive to the rulers and powers he faced, and those rulers and powers responded by killing him. Yet, God thwarted their intentions by raising Jesus from the dead.

The thing is, we—God’s church—have bold access to God through faith in Jesus Christ. The author of Ephesians tells us we can have confidence in this. We can speak truth and wisdom to the reigning disorder of those rulers and powers so that the world might be transformed by God’s grace. As the author of Ephesians reminds us, God created everything. One day, the rulers and powers will answer to God. Until then, we are servants who are called to distribute God’s grace, just as the author of Ephesians was.

Jesus Christ came to reveal God to all people, including those people who were once considered outside the bounds of God’s grace and care. That’s why we celebrate Epiphany: because God’s hidden plan has been made known. The oneness and inclusion which God intends for humanity is good news, and it will not be thwarted.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Matured | 1st after Christmas

Luke 2:41-52

41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. 42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. 43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. 44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. 45 When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were shocked.

His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”

49 Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he said to them. 51 Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. 52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.

Matured

The Sunday after Christmas Day typically has a less-than-normal attendance rate at worship services. It’s the same with the Sunday after Easter Day. The big celebration of Christmas is now over. Decorations are probably coming down in some people’s homes. We’re tired because we’ve all been busy with travelling, visiting family and friends, going to Christmas parties and gatherings, eating Christmas meals, the craziness of Christmas morning when the kids (or grandkids) open their gifts. Not to mention all the shopping that some people have been doing for more than a month.

It’s exhausting! Wonderful, but exhausting.

I feel like I had two Christmas Days because I saw Christmas morning twice. Once from midnight to about 2:00 a.m. after our Candlelight Vigil Service, and then again at about 8:00 a.m. when I woke up for the day. Honestly, by Christmas evening, I didn’t want to do anything but go to sleep early.

And now we have the revelry of New Year’s Eve to look forward to tomorrow. I’m still tired frim Christmas. My New Year’s Eve will be me sitting at home finishing off the last of the eggnog. I may or may not stay up to ring in 2019 because 2018 just made me that tired.

So, I get why church members stay home on the Sunday after Christmas.

In fact, today is almost an image of our Gospel text from Luke. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover festival, as usual. Now that the festival had ended, they headed home with all the other faithful pilgrims who’d gone to the temple for worship. The temple, which had been a crowded place during the celebration would have boasted plenty of room for the few who might show up now that it was over. Maybe these were, like the young Jesus, the faithful whose devotion lasted year-round. There were people like that: people like Anna who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37 CEB).

Apparently, the smaller crowd allowed extra time to discuss important matters of faith, which was just what the twelve-year-old Son of God craved. Really, Jesus’ motive for staying in the Temple while his parents hit the road isn’t clear. Maybe he had questions that were important to him and wanted to discuss them with those who really might know the answers or, at least, how to find those answers. Maybe he lost track of time, like kids tend to do. Maybe he thought he was grown up enough to stay behind in another city while his mom and dad headed back home to Nazareth and figured he’d catch up with them later. Maybe he didn’t think he was lost at all.

His parents, Mary and Joseph, certainly thought Jesus was lost. At least, they came to that conclusion after travelling a day toward home before realizing that their son wasn’t with their group. The text suggests that Mary and Joseph were travelling back to Nazareth with a rather large company of extended family and friends, so it’s easy to imagine how a tween-age boy could get lost among the other kids in the group.

When we had our Romain Christmas gathering, we walked into my cousin’s house and I didn’t see my children for hours. I assumed they were somewhere in the house, but I figured as long as there wasn’t screaming that suggested pain or blood puddles on the floor, I just assumed they were good.

Now, I know that Mary and Joseph occasionally get a bad wrap from some people who think, how could they travel an entire day and not know their kid was missing? Were their parenting skills that bad? But, I’ll defend them. As a parent with kids currently ranging in age from eight to thirteen, I get it. I really do. Being a parent is exhausting on any day but being a parent on a holiday is ridiculous! I mean, nothing can prepare you for the energy it saps out of your bones.

When I first became a parent, every sound Kara made had me running to her cradle to make sure she was okay. Every! Sound! And it got tiring. I think it’s one of those learning curves every parent experiences. So, over time, a parent learns to pay attention to the kind of sound your kid makes. And we parse out whether the sound is just a sound, or a distressful sound. And we get really adept at learning to tell the difference.

So, for instance, take screaming.

Parents—and adults who are used to kids—pretty much know the difference between happy screams and screams of pain. But there are those moments when a scream’s pitch makes parents sit up with a racing heart and listen hard, because the way a scream sounded, it could go either way.

So, we listen, ready to get up and run, while pausing to see how this thing’s going to turn out. Those moments, they’re like restrained tension: parents are a loaded spring ready to go. Then, a laugh rings out, or there’s a tell-tale change in pitch that reassures our hearts that the child in question is actually expressing joy rather than pain. And we relax and go back to what we were doing because we’re reasonably certain that the kids are okay.

At my cousin Amy’s house, I just assumed my kids were somewhere… in the house. Same with my cousin Ryan a day later. I just assumed my kids were with their cousins… somewhere. I didn’t see them for hours. But again: no screaming, and no blood. So, in my mind, they were good.

I say that to put Mary and Joseph’s situation into a little perspective. They were not neglectful parents. They were not travelling as a nuclear family, they were traveling as The Crowd from Nazareth. Jesus is the one who decided to stay in Jerusalem when his parents left the city in the caravan full of family and friends. Why wouldn’t they have assumed Jesus was in the caravan with them? Why wouldn’t they assume their son was off with some of his cousins or friends? Leaving would have been as busy and chaotic as any family trip I’ve ever taken. Jesus knew they were leaving. In their favor, the text does say that Mary and Joseph assumed Jesus was in the caravan, and they looked for him the whole day while they travelled. Jesus is the one who ditched them and chose to wander off for another visit to the temple.

And, he really didn’t waste any courtesy on his mom and dad when they found him—three days later(!)—in the temple. When Mary asked him why he did this to them and explained how worried they’d been and how they’d had to search for him, Jesus’ response was, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 CEB).

No. They obviously didn’t know that. Luke only tells us that his parents didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, which is a clue that there’s more going on in the text than at first appears.

On one hand, I try to imagine how I would respond to this situation if this were my son. But that really doesn’t compare because my son is a normal kid, and I’m a normal parent. Mary, on the other hand, knew that Jesus was God’s Son, that he was special and different. Maybe this wasn’t the first instance of Jesus doing something odd and acting like it was completely normal. In any case, it seems that Mary and Joseph exercised a rare kind of patience with their son that was equal to the moment and met Jesus where he was.

Where Jesus was, in this moment and so many others, was in his father’s house. One of the things we learn about Jesus is that the temple was immensely important to him. He was carried into the temple before he could walk when he was presented to the Lord and recognized as Israel’s redeemer by Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-24). He, apparently, like to hang out there and ask questions of the scribes and elders. When Jesus visited the temple years later, Jesus threw the money changers out and turned over the tables of those who were selling things there. And he quoted Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, saying, “My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a hideout for crooks” (Luke 19:46 CEB).

Jesus called it his house, because his father’s house was his home, too. And what was going on in his house necessarily demanded his attention. “Didn’t you know,” Jesus said to his mother, “that it was necessary for me to be in my father’s house?”

I’d posit that it’s necessary for us to be in God’s house, too. We need to be present in God’s house so that we can mature and grow in perfection. God’s grace is necessary for us to grow, and that necessarily requires something of us.

Here’s the curious thing—at least it might seem a curious thing to us: even Jesus matured. Even Jesus grew in perfection. Even Jesus needed to be in the temple to worship God. Even Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath day, as the Gospel reminds us in Luke 4:16.

The fact that Jesus “matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people” (Luke 2:52 CEB) wasn’t some miraculous event that just happened, it was due to the practice of his faith! He was in the temple. He was an observant Jew from a family of observant Jews who went to temple during the pilgrim festivals, and to the synagogue every Sabbath. It was important to Jesus to be in God’s house. Jesus grew steadily from his religious roots, not in spite of them. There is no such thing as being either a Jew or a Christian apart from the community of faith!

John Wesley saw this text as evidence for practical divinity, that growth in holiness is a process that requires progress. Jesus, though he was already perfect, continued to grow in perfection. If even the perfect Son of God had to mature and grow, it plainly follows that even the purest and most seasoned of Christians have room to mature, too. Isn’t that why we come to this place every week?

I’m glad you’re here to worship God on this typically low-attendance Sunday. Maybe you know why you decided to come or, maybe, you don’t really know. Maybe you just felt compelled by some inner-necessity to be in God’s house today with your extended family and friends. Whatever got you here, your presence on such a day suggests that your faith is important to you, and that—like Jesus—you know you have room to mature.

Which, if you think about it, is a rather mature insight.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Rejoice! | 3rd Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20

14 Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem. 15 The LORD has removed your judgment; he has turned away your enemy. The LORD, the king of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil. 16 On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem: Don’t fear, Zion. Don’t let your hands fall. 17 The LORD your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. 18 I will remove from you those worried about the appointed feasts. They have been a burden for her, a reproach. 19 Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time. I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast. I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. 20 At that time, I will bring all of you back, at the time when I gather you. I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the LORD. (CEB)

Rejoice!

How many of you knew there was a black prophet of African ancestry in the Old Testament? Well, if you didn’t, then meet Zephaniah. He was the son of Cushi, which, in Hebrew, means African, and usually refers to the upper-Nile region south of Egypt. Whether Cushi is the name of Zephaniah’s father or a racial designation, we don’t know.

Zephaniah the prophet went beyond naming the usual two generations of his genealogy, expanding it to four. He was the grandson of Gedaliah, and great-grandson of Amariah, and the second-great-grandson of Hezekiah (c.f. Zephaniah 1:1). It’s assumed that his second-great-grandfather was King Hezekiah. So, Zephaniah was a distant part of the royal family: maybe second-cousin to King Josiah.

After all, King Hezekiah had strong political ties to the 25th Dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs, who were Nubians of the Kushite Empire. The Scriptures mention several people of African descent living in Israel in the days of the prophets Zephaniah and Jeremiah. It was common for marriages to be made between royal families to seal political alliances. It’s possible that a daughter of Gedaliah, who would have been King Hezekiah’s great-granddaughter, was given in marriage to a Nubian noble named Cushi as part of the continued alliance between Judah and Egypt. If that’s the case, then Zephaniah was born from that political union. And, we have a black prophet in the Old Testament.

This section of Zephaniah’s writing stands out as a sudden and unexpected shout of joy. The first eight oracles are only bad news for, and judgment against, Judah and Jerusalem. While King Hezekiah “…did what was right in the Lord’s eyes, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:3), his son and successor, Manasseh, was one of the worst. And, while Josiah was described as a faithful king who tried to reform the Kingdom of Judah by returning to the laws of the Covenant at Sinai, Zephaniah saw a different reality on the streets.

The people neglected the matters of justice and righteousness. They didn’t take care of the poor. They withheld their tithes and offerings from God. They treated their neighbors with disrespect. They worshipped idols. They put their trust in wealth, power, and prestige. They believed that God wouldn’t act on account of these things. They thought they were secure.

But, through Zephaniah, God said, “I will wipe out everything from the earth, says the LORD. I will destroy humanity and the beasts; I will destroy the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea. I will make the wicked into a heap of ruins; I will eliminate humanity from the earth, says the LORD” (Zephaniah 1:2-3 CEB).

Not only did Zephaniah suggest the destruction of the earth, but he said that the Lord would invade the darkness of Judah’s heart like a person who takes a lamp into a dark place to ferret out secret and hidden sins (c.f. Zephaniah 1:12). The people thought that God didn’t see the things they did or read the thoughts of their minds, or know the sinful desires of their hearts, so they did whatever they wanted. But Zephaniah declared that the day of the Lord is coming: a terrible day of judgment, and a bitter day of distress and anguish, ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom.

It’s almost-but-not-quite astonishing that the last oracle of Zephaniah is one of rejoicing. To be sure, Zephaniah doesn’t foresee everyone rejoicing here. God declared that the corrupt priesthood which was more worried about appointed feasts than justice for the poor, lame, and outcast, would be removed. Their concern was for ritual. But they neglected the weightier matters of righteousness, namely, caring for people.

This was a problem that persisted to the time of Jesus, who said, “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters” (Matthew 23:23 CEB; c.f. also Luke 11:42).

It’s somewhat ironic that the lame would have been considered sinners according to Deuteronomic theology. They would have been outcasts. Their infirmity would have been proof, in the minds of some, that they were sinners. Yet, it’s the lame and the outcast whom God will deliver, gather, and change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. These are the very people who were neglected by the king and by the priesthood. He tells those who were being oppressed, “Watch what I am about to do to your oppressors…” (Zephaniah 3:19a CEB).

One thing we need to understand is that, in the Scriptures, promise does not come apart from judgment. The Scriptures do not offer comfort to the comfortable. Rather, God’s promises, like that declared by Zephaniah, come after dark times of death, destruction, despair, and pain. Yet, twice, in the imperative for the people to rejoice, Zephaniah tells the people not to be afraid, and he says that the Lord is in their midst.

But, if we’re honest, we’re afraid of a lot. One scholar suggested that, if we read between the lines of verses 16-20, we can see something of our own souls. “We fear that God is not in our midst… We fear that our hands are weak and powerless… We fear insignificance, doubting that we matter in the course of events and dreading that we will be crushed by them. We fear political defeat and natural disaster. We fear shame and reproach, that our faults… will be discovered and render us less than the person we had fooled ourselves and others into thinking we were. We are afraid that we won’t have enough, won’t be enough. We even fear that God may keep God’s promises, and interrupt the safety of our fears and the familiarity of our enemies with something new” (D. Block in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, pg. 54-55).

Zephaniah’s oracle acknowledges our fears and dispels them with a promise of restoration and joy. It’s as if the prophet has brought us forth to the very lip of the chasm of judgment and doom, only to draw us back at the very last moment. Our joy is made all the more intense because of the absolute hopelessness out of which it springs. The word of God which began as irredeemable judgment has been transformed into transcendent gladness! That which once anticipated the silence of the people (c.f. 1:7) or, worse, our cries of sorrow (c.f. 1:11), now celebrates with a song of joy (c.f. 3:14).

The roots of this song of joy don’t lie in the strength or sudden turn toward goodness of the people. Rather, this song of joy is rooted—absolutely—In the grace and benevolence of God. The God who is Israel’s judge is also Israel’s lover and faithful partner in a holy covenant. The coming of the Lord looked like a moment of disaster and fear, but all that has changed. Now the presence of God among us removes all of our fear; it brings salvation.

This song promises us a day of great joy and exultation. It’s a day of renewed love, gladness, singing, salvation, gathering in, and the restoration of fortunes. It is the Lord who has championed the cause of God’s people. Because our God will now rejoice and exult, we, too, can be caught up in this same celebration. Since the Lord our God will renew us in his love, we are invited to accept this love and to participate in this love with gladness and joy.

Today we are called to rejoice! Rejoice in God our Savior! Rejoice in the one who comes to save us, to heal us, who comes to BE our joy. Christ our Savior not only gives us reason to feel joyful, he IS our joy.

Every December, I hear people lament that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit, that they don’t feel like they should at Christmas time, that they’re missing a feeling of joy. I can relate to that. I think we all can admit there are times in our life where the feeling of joy has been absent. Yet, while joy is a feeling, it’s also a response to what we know to be true. That’s one of the beautiful things about this Sunday: we are reminded that no matter what trouble, trials, or tribulations are going on in our lives, there is reason to rejoice!

Rejoice!

Rejoice that God loves you!

Rejoice that God has put God’s own love into us so that we might share it with everyone around us!

Rejoice that God has redeemed us!

Rejoice that God remembers your sins no more!

Rejoice that God calls you by name as his beloved daughters and sons!

Rejoice that God will one day wipe every tear from our eyes!

Rejoice that God has given us each other, to bear with one another through whatever happens in our lives.

Rejoice that God came into our very midst as a human being, born so many years ago, to dwell with us and share our humanity!

Rejoice that Jesus, the Christ, has gone to prepare a place for us where there will be no more sorrows!

Rejoice that our Lord will one day return and make God’s home among us.

Rejoice that we will live forever in the presence of the living God who is Love!

Rejoice!

Rejoice!

This Sunday, we are invited to rejoice and exult with all our heart in the salvation of our Lord and God. Don’t fear. The Lord our God is in our midst.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Coming | 1st of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

14 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The LORD Is Our Righteousness.

Coming

Advent seems like a strange season to many Christians. Not only is it strange, it’s maybe not-so-strangely misunderstood. It casts an unfamiliar vibe. Part of the reason for our misunderstanding of the Advent season is undoubtedly due to Advent’s conflict our cultural mindset which occupies the same time. After all, most of us are getting ready for Christmas before the dishes from our Thanksgiving meals are put away. I admit that I did my Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, albeit from the comfort of my chair in front of my computer.

Another oddity with Advent is that it messes with time. During the weeks of December, most of us are paradoxically looking forward to the birth of a baby that has already been born—and is yet still being born in us. And, we’re looking forward to the New Year when, for Christians, the first Sunday of Advent is the New Year.

The reality of Advent, however, is that it has no star in the east to guide magi toward the child born in Bethlehem. It has no choir of angels singing refrains of God’s glory, and no shepherds watching their flocks by night. Advent has no birth in a cattle stall, no swaddled baby in a manger, and no Blessed Virgin Mary who ponders in her heart the words of the angel as reported by those shepherds.

The Scripture verses we read during the season of Advent are sometimes strange and difficult to hear. The Gospel readings are all focused on adults who speak about the coming of God’s dominion in apocalyptic overtones. The readings from the New Testament letters all point to the nearness of the Lord’s return. The Old Testament readings speak of a future time of restoration and peace with the coming Day of the Lord which are spoken to a people who are facing the terrors of exile with their crushed hopes, dashed dreams, with a trail of blood, tears, and burned livelihoods either before or behind them.

Advent is not filled with the feel-good stories that we love. These are not the childhood favorites that draw the waters of bubbly nostalgia up from deep within our hearts. Even the songs we sing in Advent, with their minor keys and tempered tempos, fail to gratify our desire to sing the carols of Christmas joy and gladness. Advent can be frustrating to us. It can be confounding to those who simply want to get on to the joy of Christmas with its gift exchanges and family gatherings and well-prepared feasts.

For me, Advent is one of my favorite seasons—it always has been—probably because the theme of the season matches most closely to how I feel all the time. I may not always feel joyful during Christmas. I may not always feel a sense of wonder during the season after Epiphany. I may not always feel remorseful or repentant during Lent. I may not always feel like I’m living out the glories or the victory of Easter, or feel alive and empowered by the Spirit in the season after Pentecost.

You see, I’m the type of person who sees how messed up the world is and I long for something better, something more, something to heal the hurts of the world. I’m the type of person who grieves deeply with each injustice I hear about on the news: every life cut short with all the hopes, dreams, and potential that’s destroyed with them; every injustice against women, minorities, refugees. My heart hurts for every person living in the midst of war or poverty or violence, who suffers at the hands of nations and powers, and the inhumanity they inflict all for the sake of the illusion of control. I grieve for the trauma that each person with these experiences and in these situations will have to deal with for the rest of their lives, and for all they lost and won’t ever get back.

I know that all sounds rather bleak. Maybe even pessimistic. Maybe my words sound like those of someone on the brink of despair. Despair would certainly fit with those who heard Jeremiah’s words. They were facing exile. They were living in the midst of war and death and destruction.

What keeps me from the brink of despair is my faith in God’s promises. When I hear about the horrors people have endured or are enduring, these things fill my prayers. And my prayers for justice, for peace, for righteousness, for restoration, for renewal: they shape my despair into hope and hopeful imagination. Instead of the paralyzation of despair, my soul cries out in longing and hope, Maranatha! The cool thing is, that word from Aramaic either means Come, Lord, or The Lord has come. One points to the source of our longing for God. The other points to the source of our hope in God.

I long for the day when the poor have everything they need, when no more children cry because they’re hungry, when cancer and other illnesses don’t cut lives short, when death is no more, when mourning and crying and pain are no more. I long for the day when refugees no longer have a reason to flee, and all are welcomed as friends no matter what insignificant border they happen to cross. I long for the day when every tear is wiped dry. I long for God’s dominion on earth.

It’s a sense of longing that runs through the season of Advent. The name of the season, itself, means coming. And that’s what we’re longing for in the season of Advent: that the Lord will come and set all things aright. We sing the mournful-sounding hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel in a minor key because only a minor-key fits when our unfulfilled longing for God’s righteousness can no longer be contained.

“The time is coming,” the Lord declares, when God’s gracious promise to Israel and Judah will be fulfilled. Jeremiah spoke this word of God’s promise to the People of Jerusalem when their world was crumbling around them. Jeremiah shouts to us that, even when things look bleak, we can trust in God’s promise that a new day is coming, when righteousness is the norm.

Jeremiah foresaw a future king of David’s line who would be righteous, who would do what is just and right. You see, Jeremiah blamed the unrighteousness of the Davidic monarchy for the exile that the people faced in his day. The Davidic kings exploited their own people, and they were unfaithful to God. They let justice and righteousness fall to the ground when they were supposed to be its defenders.

The righteous branch was also foreseen by Isaiah, who said, “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. The LORD’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD. He will delight in fearing the LORD. He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land. He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked. Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.” (Isaiah 11:1-5 CEB).

God promised to raise up a branch from the stump of a kingly line that had been cut off. Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were the last kings of David’s line. In the middle of hopelessness, Jeremiah offers the people hope. Jeremiah promises them days for which they might long: days when everything that the people have lost will be restored, and the coming-one of David’s line will govern the people with righteousness and justice so that they live in safety.

But, what does the word righteousness even mean? It’s a churchy word that we’re sometimes afraid of because we usually hear it used when we think someone is being self-righteous. Righteousness isn’t an attitude. It’s not an absolute standard. It simply means acting in accordance with God’s purposes. It’s doing the Godly thing. Righteousness is doing good instead of doing bad. It’s also doing as opposed to being. Righteousness is humility, and the ethics of living with and for others in relationships that are loving and just. Self-righteousness is the opposite of righteousness. It’s inflated ego and self-approval. Advent is an invitation for God’s people to remember that we are called to practice righteousness, now, even as we yearn for the future of God’s dominion.

Speaking of our longing: Holy Communion, this meal we’re about to share together, it’s a foretaste of our longings fulfilled. But we need to remember that this meal doesn’t point to magi, or a star, or the things of tender nostalgia. Instead, it points to a world gone mad: a world that desperately needs and longs for the salvation of our God. This meal is of the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ whose body was beaten, broken, and bled out by people and powers also for the sake of the illusion of control. This table is set with food paid for at a costly price. Yet, we’re invited to partake, to share in this meal with each other so that we are reminded that our longing for God is not in vain.

God declares that “The time is coming.” Maybe Advent isn’t so strange or unfamiliar after all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

 

(c.f. Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1, pg. 2-7).

Reign of Christ | Proper 29

John 18:33-37

33 Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”

35 Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

37 “So you are a king?” Pilate said.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

Reign of Christ

A world-famous archaeologist who once said, “Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Ok, so, that was actually Dr. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Harrison Ford was right. Even for a movie-archaeologist. There is a difference between fact and truth, and there are differences between kinds of truth.

We talk about facts as those empirically verifiable objective things. Facts exist in reality. They can be observed and proved by the senses. If I have two apples and add two more, I have four apples. If I mix hydrogen with oxygen and then light it with a match, I’m going to get a really big explosion…and water.

Truth is, seemingly, a little more difficult to nail down. Truth can have the quality of being more subjective than objective, it can be relative or universal. Truth is sometimes defined as what an individual person has come to believe about the state of something or someone. That’s relative truth, and it’s not the same for everyone. My wife and I still disagree about the temperature. In summer, she’s fine with scorching heat in the house so long as it’s not too humid, so I roast. But, in winter, she’s like an arctic fox who needs to feel the cold, so I freeze.

On the other hand, logic requires us to admit that universal and absolute truths exist. After all, if anyone who believes that all truth is relative and thus states, All truth is relative, there is no such thing as absolute truth, then that person has already contradicted themselves by stating the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.

John’s theme of truth is a central point in this text. When Jesus encounters Pontius Pilate, it’s an encounter between an intellectual understanding of truth, which we find in Pilate, and truth as divine revelation, which we find in Jesus. Years after this encounter, one of the early Christian Fathers named Tertullian would ask one of the most enduring questions in Christianity: “What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Prescription Against Heretics, 7). Athens represented philosophy and empirical truth. Jerusalem represented the truth of divine revelation. John tells us that Jesus is identified with God’s truth (c.f. 1:9, 14), and is, himself, the truth (c.f. 14:6).

God’s truth speaks of God’s reign and rule over all creation. It points to an authority that is above all earthly authorities, powers, and political entities. For those who belong to this truth, it speaks to a way of life that is different from the way the rest of the world lives, and values that are different from what the human world values. This truth requires us to look beyond what we believe so that we can hear what God has declared.

This truth is absolutely transforming if we seek it through discerning obedience. But discerning obedience is difficult because it means we must try to live—beyond our individual selves—into something that isn’t necessarily comfortable for us. This truth asks us to look deeply into ourselves: who we are and what we have become, in order that we might live into what we can and ought to be as citizens of God’s dominion. If Jesus Christ is our king, if the reign of God is a truth above all truths, then Christians bow only to Christ. We give our allegiance to Christ above and before any other person, nation, party, power, politic, or authority. And, we seek to understand what God values and requires even as these earthly persons, nations, parties, powers, politics, and authorities are clamoring for our attention and our allegiance.

 

One of the difficulties for American Christians who read this text is that our very mindset is so different from the people of the Ancient Near East. American culture values the idea of individualism. And not just individualism, but rugged individualism. We tend to think of ourselves wholly as individuals, apart and distinct from other individuals to the point that the idea of community, itself, is almost thought of as a weakness or, at best, an appendage that’s nice to have on occasion, but we like that it’s something that we can easily cut off—at least temporarily—so we can be our true individual selves. Especially if things get too deep or too real for our rugged individual comfort.

We United Methodists have largely forgotten that the glue that held Methodism together from the earliest days was Christian community. Methodists were organized into small groups which met weekly where the members encountered each other in community that was authentic and life-giving. In those small community-groups, they shared their lives with each other: their faith, their struggles, their hopes, their prayers. That kind of thing scares the snot out of most Americans because we’re so deeply trapped in the cultural value of rugged individualism that we can’t allow ourselves to experience the vulnerability of community. We don’t want other people to see our true selves because they might see that we’re not so rugged or so individualistic after all. They might see that we need them, and that’s terrifying for an American.

Maybe that’s the challenge for us, because another theme that’s central to this text is that of belonging. Jesus told Pilate, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b CEB).

The reign of God is larger than any individual. The reign of God creates a new community. John the Seer wrote of Jesus, “…by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will rule on earth” (Revelation 5:9-10 CEB).

When Jesus uses the word king and kingdom, here, he gives them new definitions. Belonging to the community of God’s dominion, a community over which Jesus Christ reigns, means we belong to a truth that is not bound to earth. Yet, this kingdom-community is not some esoteric, imaginary thing, either. Jesus came from and belongs to a different kind of kingdom: the dominion of God.

There are times when we test our belonging to community. Children test their belonging to family. I vaguely remember when I got mad at my parents and decided to run away. I climbed a tree behind our house and sat there until I got cold and hungry enough to decide that, whether I liked my family or not, whether I wanted to belong with my family or not, I really did need them.

Communities of faith are no different. Members and non-member constituents test their belonging to our congregation. Sometimes they deliver ultimatums. Sometimes they drift away quietly to see if anyone will notice. Others talk it out with church leadership or other persons and decide whether to stay or leave based on the response they get. All these tests of belonging are based on each individual’s own decision-making. Yet, in the Ancient Near Eastern sense, belonging isn’t really up to each one of us alone. We belong because we belong. We belong because the community knows us, loves us, and claims us. When Jesus tells Pilate, “Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b CEB), Jesus is offering Pilate an invitation to be a part of this community that transcends the individual self.

 

But, how do we listen to the voice of Jesus? It requires a relationship with Jesus in which we constantly look beyond ourselves. When I do premarital counseling with couples, I use a tool called a Marriage Covenant which has all kinds of questions that are designed to force communication to happen. I remind couples that sometimes marriage is work—hard work—precisely because it’s a relationship. And relationships transcend individualism. Relationships require constant communication about everything. So, working through the Marriage Covenant is practice for the kind of constant communication that will foster growth and depth in their relationship as a couple.

When Joy and I were in our first ministry appointment in Terre Haute, we met this couple named Herb and Jerri Redman. They were the sweetest, kindest people you could ever know. Each of them, in their own way, was just a hoot. When you settled yourself on the couch or glider across the living room from Herb and Jerri and started chatting with them, you quickly found out that Jerri did all the talking. Those two loved each other so deeply, knew each other so intimately, that only one of them ever needed to talk.

Now, Herb usually got one or two words in on the edges of the conversation, but Jerri would even answer questions that you asked to Herb. And if you looked over at Herb when Jerry was answering for him, he would just get this big knowing grin on his face and nod his head. And Jerri knew full-well she was talking for Herb. She would even occasionally preface her comments by saying, “Now, I’m going to answer for him.”

Jerri was like the main character carrying on the dialogue of a story. Herb was like the narrator, occasionally throwing in little tidbits of background or corrective information. That’s how I hope my relationship with Joy is when I’m 80. When we have visitors I’ll just sit back and let her go, confident that she’ll say what I would have said anyway because she knows me that well.

Building up that kind of relationship doesn’t happen overnight. Like the couples I counsel before their marriage, like Herb and Jerri Redman practiced for 65 years, all of our relationships require commitment, work, constant attention, and accepting the possibility that there’s still room to grow, that we don’t yet know it all. The way we listen to the voice of Jesus is by getting to know him so well that you could almost say he lives in you. In fact, when we enter into that kind of loving relationship with Jesus Second John, reminds us that the truth “abides in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 1:2, my trans.). When we accept the truth and listen to the voice of Jesus, we cannot help but follow the truth that takes up residence inside of us.

There’s another aspect to being in relationship with Jesus that we might overlook. You see, having a relationship with Jesus is not a one-on-one, individual thing. It requires community. Jesus had disciples, and Jesus founded this thing called the church. The church isn’t a building, though that’s often how we think of it. The church is a community of people who are in a relationship with Jesus and with each other. Look around you. We who belong to Jesus belong to one another.

In this new community of God’s dominion, we don’t so much follow in the footsteps of Jesus as we live a life infused with his presence, in sync with the Holy Spirit, and governed by the truth Jesus reveals to us. I think that’s what it means for followers to follow truth. We follow by living Jesus-infused lives, by living in such communion with Jesus—and each other—that he lives in us and we in him.

We have the invitation. But we must be willing to listen to the voice of Jesus and look deeply into ourselves. Followers follow truth, even with the truth tells us we need to change our hearts and minds in order to live more fully into the dominion of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

A Penny | Proper 27

Mark 12:38-44

38 As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39 They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40 They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44 All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

A Penny

Our Gospel reading for today includes two parts of a larger story. After entering Jerusalem, Jesus hung out near the Temple, teaching people and his Disciples, arguing and discussing issues with religious leaders such as the Scribes. In verses 38-40, Jesus speaks harshly against the Scribes, or legal experts as the Common English Bible translates the word. But he didn’t suggest that all legal experts were bad. In fact, just a few verses earlier, Jesus commended a Scribe, saying, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom” (Mark 12:34 CEB).

Yet, there are always those in every profession and walk of life who think they’re honest even as they act dishonestly, who think they’re righteous even as they act in ways that are unrighteous, and who think they’re ethical, moral, and just even as they act in ways that are unethical, immoral, and unjust. Self-delusion is possible in every profession, even amongst religious and legal professionals. In fact, I read once that the two kinds of academic libraries that have the most books stolen are seminary and law school libraries. Apparently, we religious and legal leaders-in-training can rationalize why we need a certain book, so we delude ourselves into thinking that it’s not really stealing.

It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in pastors and lawyers.

It’s important for us to note that the local language spoken in Judea and Galilee when Jesus lived was not Hebrew, but Aramaic. Most people spoke Greek, too, but Aramaic would have been the language used in people’s homes. Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have sung her baby to sleep in Aramaic lullabies. Greek was the language of commerce. Hebrew was the original language of the Holy Scriptures, though there was a Greek translation called the Septuagint, and there were Aramaic paraphrases and explanations of the Hebrew text called the Targumim. But few, if any, spoke Hebrew in conversational language.

It’s also important for us to note that the literacy rate in the ancient world was dismally low. Scribes, or legal experts, were the people in Ancient Israel who could read and write. That made Scribes both the legal and religious experts. Why? Because they read it and wrote it by making copies. When there was a question about a religious or legal matter, it was the Scribes who searched the Scriptures for the answer. They knew the Hebrew Scriptures because they handled them on a daily basis.

Because they could read and write, the Scribes were also the ones who kept the ledgers in the Temple and other areas of life. They recorded financial transactions, kept inventories, documented legal agreements and suits, and logged political policy. The work of Scribes was important and necessary.

Another thing we should note is that, in Ancient Israel, there was little—if any—separation between religious and legal or political matters. In the United States, we insist on keeping religion separate from law and politics—even to the point that some people think their religious leaders shouldn’t comment on legal or political matters. That kind of separation was unknown in Ancient Israel where the law was religion because the law was God’s Law. Scribes were the interpreters and teachers of God’s Law. Because of that, Scribes were respected members of society. But, as with any profession, not all Scribes were faithful in the ways that mattered most to God.

Jesus warned the people to watch out for the legal experts—the Scribes—because some of them weren’t living faithfully. Those who liked to walk around in their long robes, who dressed to impress, liked to do so to gain attention from others. Their fine clothes left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were important people. They liked to be greeted with honor in the marketplace. They longed for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. The marketplaces were public, secular areas. The synagogues were places of worship. And banquets often took place in people’s homes. So, Jesus suggested that, for some Scribes, the desire for honor covered all arenas of Jewish life: public, religious, and private.

Honor and shame shaped Jewish culture in ways that our broader modern American culture can’t really understand. Honor and shame still shape many Near, Middle, and Far Eastern cultures. So, for Jesus to accuse them of cheating and showing off would have shamed any Scribe. Not only were they accused of cheating, but they cheated widows out of their homes. They cheated the most vulnerable among them so they could continue to wear their long robes.

God’s Law consistently speaks about widows in ways that demand empathy and care from others (c.f. Deuteronomy 10:18-19; 14:29). Widows, along with immigrants and orphans, are constantly listed together as people for whom God is especially concerned. The Scriptures also consistently declare God’s immense displeasure with anyone who harms, neglects, or oppresses widows, immigrants, or orphans. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God indicted Jerusalem for failing to care for widows, immigrants, and orphans (c.f. Ezekiel 22:6-8, 25, 29). There is no exception to this rule.

Psalm 94 even speaks of God as an avenger and, regarding those who fail to follow God’s Law on this matter, the Psalmist says, “They kill widows and immigrants; they murder orphans, saying all the while, ‘The LORD can’t see it; Jacob’s God doesn’t know what’s going on!’ You ignorant people better learn quickly. You fools—when will you get some sense?” (Ps. 94:6-8 CEB). To defraud, cheat, oppress, or neglect widows, immigrants, or orphans is the same as murdering them because such a person makes already dire circumstances impossible worse.

To cheat widows out of their homes in order to maintain a system that provides wealth and privilege is the height of hypocrisy. It doesn’t matter how many long prayers we can say, what finery we’re wearing, or what honor we receive in public, religious, or private settings; those who cheat the vulnerable instead of providing care for them—as the Law requires—will be judged with exceeding harshness.

Then, Jesus sat across from the collection box for the Temple treasury and did some people watching. He observed how the crowd gave their money. He noticed that many rich people were giving lots of money. But he also noticed how a poor widow gave two half-pennies. So, he called his disciples together and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on” (Mk. 12:43-44 CEB).

Now, some interpreters have lifted this widow up as someone to emulate as an example of truly faithful and sacrificial giving. Such an interpretation suggests that we should give until it hurts, no matter how poor we are. However, there are a few clues in the text which suggest that Jesus’ message is more complicated than that.

Firstly, Jesus had just criticized people in positions of power who, under the guise of religion, cheat widows by taking their homes. In light of that criticism, it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus would commend a widow for giving her last penny to a Temple system that supported those Scribes and provided them with enough income that they could strut about in their long robes while she remained poor.

Secondly, even if all the widow had was a penny, there wasn’t much she could have bought for herself with those two coppers anyway. I have a jar of pennies at home that I haven’t bothered counting or depositing in the bank because it takes a LOT of pennies to count for anything, and it would almost be more work that it’s worth to bother with them.

While we can’t know the widow’s intention in giving, there are a few ways to look at it. One way of looking at her gift is one of true faithfulness in which she entrusted herself wholly to God. Another viewpoint might be that she was trying to buy a little divine favor, as if such favor could be purchased. Afterall, desperate circumstances can lead people to try desperate schemes and hold fast to desperate hope. A third way of looking at her gift is one of indictment. The Temple system should have been helping her, but all she had were two mostly-worthless coppers that wouldn’t buy her a crumb of bread. Maybe her gift was the widow’s way of saying, Thanks for nothing. Here. You can have your coppers back.

The second view of the widow’s giving probably would not have earned a commendation from Jesus. The third one, maybe, since it would have been a very prophetic thing to do. And, while the first one might have earned a commendation, the scenario—as a whole—still highlights that the Temple utterly failed this woman.

Perhaps that’s aiming nearer to the point. Maybe this widow and her small-yet-mighty gift point out the nature of integrity in the face of hypocrisy. While we can’t know the intentions of the wealthy givers: whether they gave for the sake of notoriety or out of a sense of true devotion, we do have Jesus’ words warning the people about the hypocrisy of the Scribes who should have known the Law better than anyone, yet they cheated widows out of their houses and showed off with long prayers.

A system that would allow a widow to give her last penny; a system that would allow her to walk away hopelessly poor; a system that would fail to take care of someone so desperately in need: that’s not merely a system that has failed, but a community of faith that has failed.

Far from keeping its nose out of law and politics, the church must come to understand that the ministry we do and the care we provide for others—especially ministry with the poor: these are spiritual disciplines that flow out of our worship of the God who loves the vulnerable and marginalized, and who consistently sides with widows, immigrants, and orphans over the well-to-do. Through our ministry and service alongside the marginalized and vulnerable, the church emphasizes a different kind of politic and a different kind of law: a politic that is, itself, righteousness, and a law that is love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Home | All Saints’ Sunday

Revelation 21:1-6a

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Home

The book of Revelation can unnerve even the most mature of Christians. The wild and frightful imagery has inspired much doom and gloom among some interpreters of its words. Many have approached Revelation as a roadmap of the future, a foretelling of horrors to come, especially for those who are “left behind” in the rapture and are subjected to the scheming of the antichrist.

So let me clarify a few misguided assumptions and misinterpretations about Revelation.

There is no antichrist in this book.

There is no rapture in this book.

These are things that certain sects of Christianity, including Darbyism, Dispensationalism, and Christian Fundamentalism, have wrongly imported into Revelation through bad Biblical interpretation.

They are not in Revelation.

Antichrist is only found five times in the Bible, and they’re all in First and Second John (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). And antichrist is not just one person who is coming, but many persons who have already come (c.f. 1 John 2:18). And what John means by antichrist is clearly defined in three ways: Firstly, as someone who denies that Jesus is the Christ; Secondly, as someone who denies the Father and the Son; or Thirdly, as someone who denies that Jesus came in human flesh.

Rapture is a whole other kind of misinterpretation of something Paul mentions in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is definitely NOT rapture as the sects I mentioned describe it.

The powerful imagery of Revelation is actually a common feature the genre of apocalyptic literature. All apocalyptic works contain strange and wild imagery and symbolic numbers and colors. But when we understand how to properly interpret apocalyptic literature, it’s really not so scary. In fact, Revelation was written as a book of consolation to Christians who were under persecution by the Roman state. Revelation is meant to console and reassure us, not cause us to be afraid or worried. It’s meant to strengthen our faith in the present so we can live into God’s future, not to make us afraid of our faith nor afraid of the future.

When Emperor Diocletian tried to enforce worship of the state cult, it was a matter of state control over the populace. John the Seer wrote Revelation to remind his flock that, what was at stake for Christians was their inmost identity. He encouraged Christian not to bow to the Roman state, despite the brutality that state inflicted upon its own people for control of their loyalties: even their souls. Revelation reminded persecuted Christians who and whose they are: where they came from and where they would finally end up whether they died a natural death or were killed in the persecution.

Yet, Revelation has been coopted and misused by some so-called “Christians” to support their hatred of Jews and Catholics, among other groups (as have many other Scripture texts). This misuse of Scripture to support hate is nothing new to Christianity. In light of recent events, including the mass-murder at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I think it’s important that we pay attention to these undercurrents in in our national culture, within the broader church, and do some self-examination within ourselves.

Hateful thoughts lead to hateful speech, which leads to hateful action. Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21-22 CEB). Why would Jesus say something that sounds so harsh for mere spoken words? Because angry thoughts lead to angry speech, and angry speech quickly leads to angry action. Another wise sage once said, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” (Yoda, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace).

When we’re told in Revelation that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, that death will be no more. That mourning and crying and pain will be no more, we need to decide what values we want to live into: those of God’s dominion or those of our culture? We need to decide what we’ll allow our thoughts, our speech, and our actions to be. Will we think, speak, and act in ways that cause tears, or will we think, speak, and act in ways that dry them? Will we think, speak, and act in ways that cause death and mourning and pain, or will we think, speak, and act in ways that show our love—Christ’s love; God’s love—for the whole of humanity, and our hope for a future that includes everyone?

Because God’s Dominion will include everyone. Revelation describes this more than once by saying, “by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (5:9 CEB) and “there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (7:9 CEB). The gathered host of God’s saints includes people that our culture—and even our government leadership—tells us to fear enough to hate.

Today is All Saints’ Day. In one sense, this is our day of remembrance: our Memorial Day. On this day we remember God’s holy people who have gone before us: those whose names we know and those whose names are known only to God. We remember the saints—the holy ones—because of their noble deeds, their faithful witness, and their martyrdom. These people, fellow members of the body of Christ, have influenced us in many ways whether we know it or not.

It has been said that if we forget the past we’re doomed to repeat it. We know that our world is full of painful and terrible atrocities that we desperately need to remember so that we don’t repeat them. We need to remember them so that we can permanently change our hearts and minds, which is the definition of repentance.

When Joy and I lived in Terre Haute, there was a Holocaust museum called CANDLES. It’s an acronym that stands for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. The museum was dedicated to remembering what happened to the children at Auschwitz who were tortured in the experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele. In December of 2003, arsonists burned the museum in an attempt to destroy the memory of the Nazi atrocities that the museum existed to preserve, and to silence the stories of both those who were murdered and those who survived Auschwitz.

The burning of the museum outraged many people in Terre Haute, me included. A protest rally was formed, and we marched in silence, holding lighted candles, from the local synagogue to the burned-out museum where we all prayed for an end to violence and hatred.

I remember that, on the way, a little boy ran out of the front door of his house and asked what we were doing. A Jewish man I was walking behind stopped to say, “We are marching because some people have decided to act out in hatred toward others, and all of these marchers are here to say that those who hate and use violence against others will not win. We will not let them win. We are marching because we love peace.” His words stuck with me because he articulated the reason for our silent march so well.

I remember the boy’s reaction, too. He sat down quietly on his porch in the cold December air and watched us walk by. He took it all in, and, though I can’t be sure, I think watching those hundreds of protesters walk silently by his house is something that he’ll always remember: hundreds of people who were marching for peace.

It’s also significant, in light of the Tree of Life Synagogue murders, that November 9th and 10th is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It’s important for us to remember. And it’s important for us to recognize that God’s dominion is one of love. Fear of others and hatred for others will not be tolerated in the future that awaits us. Anti-Semitism cannot exist in the minds or hearts of people who follow a Jewish savior. Hatred for any peoples cannot exist in the minds or hearts of those who follow a Savior who will bring together people from every nation, tribe, language, and people.

As much as All Saints’ Sunday is about remembrance, it’s also about looking forward to where we’re going. “In my beginning is my end,” T.S. Elliot wrote (East Coker in Four Quartets). God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Just as we came from God, God is our final destination. The book of Revelation is eschatology. It’s about the end, but not an end that’s necessarily restricted to chronological or temporal finality. It’s also about the end in the sense of our purpose and goal as people who belong to God.

In that future are a new heaven and a new earth: perhaps pointing to a resurrected heaven and earth since the former heaven and earth will pass away. The sea, which represents the chaos from which evil comes, will be no more. And in John’s vision he saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In early Jewish apocalyptic literature, a heavenly Jerusalem was thought to preexist the earthly Jerusalem (c.f. 4 Ezra 7:26; 8:52, 2 Baruch 4:2-6). Here, John sees New Jerusalem coming down from a restored heaven to a restored earth, where God will dwell among us.

The name of this very Jewish city means city of peace. As a people whose beginning is our end, I encourage us to consider whether peace is truly guiding our hearts. The words of Revelation are trustworthy and true. If we are, indeed, saints—if we are God’s holy ones—then the way we live our everyday lives must be rooted in God’s love and compassion for every human life, not the majority, nor the power-brokers, but every human life: even the most vulnerable and marginalized. Our future home is God’s dominion, and God’s dominion is perfectly cosmopolitan. How we think about other people, how we talk about other people, how we act toward other people: these things matter a great deal. To choose fear, anger, and hatred is to risk finding ourselves on the outside looking in when God’s new reality comes.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay